Way back in early April, I traveled to Brooklyn for a night of baseball, beers, and balcony (his view is pretty much this) with my Denverite friend. As C.C. Sabathia flirted with a no-hitter against Tampa Bay, I asked my friend who was pitching for the Rockies against the Padres. “Hammel,” he said. My reply: “Cool. You guys should be okay, as long as Latos isn’t going for the Padres. He could be pretty good.”
I couldn’t help but think of that moment as I watched Mat Latos destroy the Dodgers last night in San Diego. Sure, the Dodgers have a pathetic offense. They rank 12th in the National League in OPS, and that’s including the contributions of the departed Manny Ramirez. Even worse, manager Joe Torre seems intent on driving that ranking downward, consistently batting the slaptastic Scott Podsednik leadoff, the punchless James Loney third, and the relatively potent Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp in bottom half of the lineup. This is all to say that while Latos wasn’t exactly facing the 1927 Yankees, last night’s performance may well have shut down any lineup in the game. It wasn’t just dominance. It was an evisceration.
Ever since the Padres shocked the baseball world by going 30-20 in their first 50 games, I’ve been telling anyone who has had the displeasure of my company that they weren’t for real, that they would eventually lose the division to the Rockies. And while I recently decided that the Giants will win the division instead of the Rockies (although they aren’t totally cooked yet), my opinion has been obnoxiously consistent since late May: the Padres’ overachieving starting pitching and consistently impotent offense would eventually catch up to them. That has, to an extent, turned out to be true. Their recent 10-game losing streak has put them neck-and-neck with the Giants in a thrilling pennant race.
Still, it would be utterly stupid to count out the Padres at this point. Their record is 78-59 on September 8th, so we are given little choice but to accept that this is a good baseball team. But if the Padres are going to succeed – if the Padres are even going to make the playoffs – they are going to need to rely on Latos’ powerful right arm. Latos is an obviously different breed than the rest of the Padres’ starters. His fastball consistently hits 94 miles per hour. Everyone else’s sits at 90. Batters swing and miss at 11% of his pitches. They whiff on everyone else’s 7-8% of the time. Latos strikes out nearly 10 batters per nine innings. Everyone else strikes out between six and seven. Latos doesn’t need a good defense or a spacious home ballpark to thrive. Everyone else needs both. The Padres’ rotation really is Latos and everyone else. He is cut from a different cloth.
Of course, it’s not as simple as just turning Latos loose in September. He is not C.C. Sabathia or Roy Halladay or any other veteran with the freakish durability that permits such an aggressive tactic. No, Latos is a 22-year-old with 162 innings on his arm after throwing 122 combined innings across three levels in 2009. Were the Padres not in a pennant race, he would have been shut down by now. The Padres themselves hinted at a 150-inning limit for Latos in 2010. But circumstances change, the Padres have much to play for, and Latos’ boundaries have clearly been stretched, if not re-drawn entirely. I’m sure the Padres organization has a new plan in place for Latos given the unexpected success of the team. I don’t know what it is – as far as I know, it hasn’t been advertised – but I’m sure it’s there.
It’s odd, but for the first time ever, I’m echoing the old baseball guard and hoping that that plan is to push Latos hard down the stretch. Even with my antipathy towards the whole “back in my day, pitchers threw 250 innings every year,” medically-ignorant mentality, I think there’s something to be said for taking the reins off Latos in order to secure a playoff spot.
My thinking starts with the fundamental purpose of the innings limits for a young pitcher. Restrictions are placed on young arms so that they can stay healthy and strong enough for an eventual push towards the World Series. Arms are not protected for protection’s sake. They are protected with a specific goal in mind. Ideally, of course, restrictions are put in place to condition young pitchers for long, effective careers and multiple runs at the World Series. But for a team like the 2010 Padres that miraculously finds itself in first place in a winnable division at summer’s end, and that has never won a World Series, you could easily understand it if they were tempted to risk the future for one shot at glory right now. Winning the World Series is why players play, scouts scout, coaches coach, fans root, and why innings limits exist.
Supporting Latos’ aggressive usage may sound Machiavellian or barbaric until you consider two other factors. The first is the sad fact that there is no such thing as a pitching prospect (to quote Gary Huckabay). Pitchers get hurt, even the ones with the flawless mechanics and impeccable conditioning since high school. Uber-prospect Stephen Strasburg’s recent and shocking breakdown was just another reminder of the fragile, unnatural nature of what pitchers do for a living. There are simply no guarantees with pitchers. Nurtured ones can get hurt, and abused ones can stay healthy. Calling it a crapshoot is not that far from the truth.
The second factor pertains to Latos specifically. Even though you can easily argue that his usage has already been aggressive, he has also been used responsibly. He has started no games on short rest. He was used cautiously in April and has gradually been built up as the season continued. He’s averaging 98.5 pitches per start, with his season high coming in at 113 just last night. He has the luxury of an excellent bullpen, which will deter his manager from leaning too heavily on his young starter late in games. He even got a break after sneezing his way onto the disabled list. It has become fashionable to cite Mark Prior’s career as a cautionary tale for the aggressive use of young pitchers, but that analogy simply doesn’t apply here. Prior was ridden fairly hard in 2002 (his rookie year) and run into the ground in 2003. Latos has been used as responsibly as a 22-year-old in a pennant race can be used: with average pitch counts and regular rest.
The Padres have come too far to turn back now, which is what they would be doing if they shut down Latos. If I were the Padres, I would arrange a meeting with Latos, his agent, and his lawyer. I would outline a plan of responsibly aggressive usage for the rest of the regular (and possibly post) season. I would tell him that the team has a great chance to make the playoffs, and given the unpredictable nature of short-series baseball, that it also has a good chance to win the World Series. Finally, I would ask for his permission to be used in this way. Latos would have every right to say no. It’s his body, his future, and his livelihood, and he has the right to protect those things. But I sure would be curious about what Latos might say to such a plan, because I can’t help but wonder what advice legendary but championship-less athletes like Dan Marino, Ted Williams, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Ernie Banks, and Barry Sanders might offer to the Padres’ gifted young right-hander.